The SPIRE Institute in Geneva is a unique, sports-focused training and education organization. Its centerpiece is SPIRE Academy, a high school centered around athletics.
Surprisingly, SPIRE is seeking a license to run an Ohio sportsbook.
Out the Gate, a new sports betting operator from two former Don Best Sports executives, is listed as the mobile management services provider partner for the applications, which seek a retail and online sportsbook for the Jan. 1, 2023 launch date.
The Ohio Casino Control Commission is currently fielding its second round of sports betting license applications. The list of applicants includes SPIRE.
The question is, how can an institute that educates high school-aged children receive a sportsbook license? Will they?
SPIRE is much more than a high school
Gambling regulators have always been clear in the US that betting on high school and youth sporting events is over the line.
The SPIRE Academy, a sports-focused boarding school for grades 9 to 12, is the school wing of the larger institute. It’s notably the alma mater of 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year Lamelo Ball. It’s also got a roster of Olympians and esports phenoms among its student body.
Students pair daily athletic training with a tailored prep school course load. They also have opportunities to pursue a college degree through nearby Kent State University. The current enrollment is about 75 students, but it has upwards of 2,000 teenagers visiting every summer for different sports camps.
Baltimore investment firm Axxella purchased SPIRE in 2019. Its plans were to expand the institute into a sports “village,” much like the Olympic village. Since then, SPIRE has built an $85 million hotel and expanded its sports facilities.
Its goal is to host collegiate tournaments with major college conferences. This past year, the venue presented the Big Ten indoor track and field championships. It also hosted both the Atlantic 10 and Northeast Conference swimming and diving championships.
More than just a sports complex, SPIRE is also a sports research and development lab researching everything from sports medicine to performance training. The research center is a 50,000-square-foot facility that houses 10 companies, including three Ohio universities: Kent State, Case Western and Lynn University.
SPIRE also features an ambassador group of US Olympic and pro sports legends. The group includes gold medalists Ryan Lochte and Caleb Dressel, and NBA star Dikembe Mutombo, who became an investor in January.
Does Ohio sports betting law allow applicants like SPIRE?
Ohio law allows for three different types of sports betting licenses. SPIRE and Out the Gate has applied for a Type A license, which is a sports betting proprietor that can license an online brand. SPIRE applied for a Type B license for a physical retail sportsbook as well. Out the Gate has also applied to be a mobile management services provider.
A Type A license requires the licensee to meet one of two prerequisites.
- They must operate a sports-gaming facility under a Type B license or
- They must operate one place of business in Ohio that “regularly maintains multiple employees”
The Type B license, of course, would satisfy the first requirement. Or, the second prerequisite requires them to simply keep the lights on. The law doesn’t require licensees to operate any particular kind of business, as Jessica Franks, Communications Director for the OCCC, explained to PlayOhio:
“There are no automatic disqualifiers for licensure. Once an application is received, the commission will hold that up against the preference, economic development and suitability criteria outlined in the law. Each application will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
SPIRE could make a case to receive a license
The law stipulates that preferences would be given to “professional sports organizations, casino operators, or video lottery sales agents,” none of which apply to SPIRE. However, the list of stipulations for both initial and yearly renewal licenses covers many angles.
Some of the key considerations for the state, based on the language of the law, include:
- Reputation, experience and financial integrity of the applicant
- Financial ability to maintain adequate insurance and also a security bond
- Whether awarding the license would undermine the public confidence in the state’s sports gaming industry
- The nature and duration of the applicant’s physical and economic presence in the state, notably their ability to promote tourism
SPIRE’s investment in sports and hospitality facilities indicate a strong investment in the state as well as the promotion of tourism. Hosting top-flight collegiate tournaments, compiling a list of notable alumni and ambassadors, and operating a cutting-edge R&D facility clearly establishes their reputation in the sports world.
Seen in this light, they represent a relatively viable option. Does their bid compare to the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Cincinnati Bengals? Probably not. But under the language of the law, they may have a shot, despite currently being most known nationally as a high school.
The law does pose some hurdles
In terms of how the law may challenge SPIRE, the “reputation” stipulation is a good place to start. This is also where the SPIRE Academy may come into play.
The OCCC could very reasonably contend that an organization that includes a secondary school may damage their own reputation as an institute of learning by operating a sports betting business. Further, the OCCC could also reasonably argue that it erodes public confidence in the gaming industry if a school campus operates a sportsbook.
Along these lines, Derek Longmeier, executive director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio, expressed his concerns about SPIRE in a statement.
“Research has shown that those that gamble at a young age are four times more likely to have a gambling problem later in life compared to their peers. We also know that athletes are particularly at risk of developing a gambling problem. The competitive mindset that makes an athlete successful on the field can become problematic when gambling.”
To that end, the law has stipulations on advertisements. The law states that ads “do not target individuals under 21 years of age” or other “vulnerable individuals.” Were SPIRE to advertise their sportsbook in its “village,” the OCCC could conclude that those ads are targeting students and not visitors.
Rachel Winder, a consultant for SPIRE, told PlayOhio the institute is aware of the stipulations.
“If SPIRE is granted a license, all gaming operations will be strictly off campus, independently operated, separate from the athletic facility and properly secured. We will be strictly compliant with the duties and responsibilities set forth by the Ohio Casino Control Commission, and the SPIRE team is committed to working diligently with their proposed management services provider, Out the Gate, to ensure legal and regulatory compliance.”
What about the sportsbook county population requirement?
Another potential hurdle could have been the county population requirement for retail sportsbooks. However, the OCCC told PlayOhio that will not be an issue for SPIRE.
According to Ohio’s sports betting law, a county must have a population of more than 100,000 people to have a retail sportsbook.
An exception exists for counties with a population of at least 50,000 but less than 100,000, as long as the county welcomes at least 5 million tourists per year. Erie County, home of Cedar Point, is apparently the only eligible county there.
Geneva’s SPIRE is in Ashtabula County, which had 97,574 residents, according to the 2020 Census. However, the OCCC’s Franks told us that qualifying numbers from the 2010 census will be used to determine locations. Then, Ashtabula County had 101,497 residents.
Ohio deliberate with sports betting policies
SPIRE may not make the cut, but in considering the state’s wide-open policy regarding types of applicants, the ethos seems bound to produce positive results.
Asking questions about an applicant’s reputation, enduring presence in the state and also a commitment to bringing people into the state is guaranteed to provide a reliable barometer for how they’ll serve the state and their community.